Napoleon Bonaparte’s military campaigns in Egypt and Ottoman Palestine, nearly 220 years ago, did not end well for the French leader. His dream of reaching India and the Far East via Egypt, and becoming “emperor of the East,” was buried. Years later, exiled on the South Atlantic island of Saint Helena, Napoleon said that if Acre, today in northern Israel, had fallen, he would have “changed the face of the world.”
But his Middle East campaign also marked a revolutionary period that brought modernity to a region which, up until then, had been on the margins of the crumbling Ottoman Empire. It also gave birth to Egyptology, archaeology, modern mapping, and medicine. The bandages used to treat the many wounded French soldiers came from a woven Gaza fabric – and to this day are called “gauze pads.”
A new exhibit in the National Library of Israel in Jerusalem is showcasing, for the first time, a collection of mementos left behind when French soldiers returned home. The exhibit, “Napoleon Was Here!,” reveals original letters, maps and other documents prepared by geographers and artists from a scientific delegation that visited Ottoman Palestine, alongside the medals of French generals and other items from Napoleon’s Middle East adventures.
One of the prominent results of Napoleon's campaign was an innovative series of maps of the regions through which his army passed – particularly along the Mediterranean coastline. These are the first maps of Ottoman Palestine based on relatively accurate measurements of distances.
The delegation of surveyors accompanying Napoleon created detailed maps on a scale of 1:100,000, while the scientific team accompanying the army included famous scholars and some 2,000 artists. During their journey they documented the antiquities of Egypt, the Pyramids, sphinxes, obelisks, temples and papyri. Daily life, botany, zoology and the arts were also recorded. All these appeared in art in the huge volumes of “Description de l’gypte” that were published after the campaign.
Napoleon also established a printing house in Cairo and, for the first time, documents and posters were printed in Arabic.
One legend claims that the Napoleon cake (mille-feuille pastry) was created when a Parisian pastry chef tried to imitate the Middle Eastern kanafeh sweet cheese pastry. (Israeli linguist Ruvik Rosenthal once offered a different explanation, in which “Neapolitan” was the name given by Americans to the Italian version of the pastry. When they later realized the cake was actually French in origin, they changed the name to Napoleon.)
Battle for the Rosetta Stone
Napoleon arrived in Alexandria at the head of his army on July 1, 1798. He took control of Egypt three weeks later, after his resounding victory in what he called the “Battle of the Pyramids” (aka the Battle of Embabeh). He advanced into Ottoman Palestine mostly to block the possibility of the English army arriving through the ports of Jaffa or Acre, or further north. England was an ally of the Ottomans and an enemy of the French at the time.
Napoleon ran into trouble when, shortly after landing in Egypt, the English navy discovered the French fleet and destroyed all of its ships in the Battle of Abukir. Tens of thousands of French soldiers, including Napoleon, found themselves stranded in the Middle East without any real means of returning to France. Napoleon’s campaign ultimately lasted three years, and ended badly.
The entire military campaign in Ottoman Palestine lasted only three months. Napoleon’s army suffered from disease, the heat, swamps along the coast and other harsh conditions.
The brief campaign here left no significant construction, or destruction, in its wake. The worst damage was in Jaffa, but the city quickly recovered. Two small hills – one in Ramat Gan, the other in Acre – still bear the name Napoleon’s Hill (Tel Grisa).
When Napoleon arrived in Acre in 1799, he encountered stubborn resistance, led by the city’s Ottoman governor, Ahmad Pasha al-Jazzar, and his army. After a five-week siege, the French army was forced to retreat, leaving a long train of wounded and sick in its wake.
The exhibit also reveals artifacts from the National Library’s Napoleon collection, which includes over 1,000 items. Most are part of a collection bequeathed to the library by Abraham Shalom Yahuda, a professor at the University of Madrid and New School for Social Research who died in 1951. His collection included some 1,400 manuscripts, most of which were in Arabic but also included about 240 in Hebrew. Some of the manuscripts are magnificently illustrated. Among the outstanding items were a collection of original documents signed by Napoleon himself, and mystical writings on the occult by Isaac Newton. Only a small portion of Yahuda’s Napoleon material is on show in the exhibition.
Exhibition curators Dr. Milka Levy-Rubin and Dr. Stefan Litt say these treasures will allow people to become acquainted with a period of the land that Israelis know very little about. In addition, they say, this is an opportunity to become acquainted with the diverse scientific development that occurred because of Napoleon’s campaign here.
Items on display include a letter whose author proposes that Napoleon call on the Jews to join his army in conquering the land, and another letter sent by a British general, John-Hely Hutchinson, to his French counterpart, Gen. Jacques-François Menou, dealing with the terms of surrender for the French forces stranded in Egypt. This letter from 1801 is filled with characteristic British humor and numerous conditions for the evacuation of the remaining 14,000 French troops and their return to Europe on English ships. Napoleon had long since returned to France.
The letter also mentions the legendary Rosetta Stone, which was handed over to the British after being found by a French soldier in the Nile Delta in July 1799. It is still on display in London’s British Museum, and is thought to be the number one attraction there. The stone’s enormous importance is because of its critical role in enabling the first decipherment of hieroglyphics. The Egyptians have made a number of attempts to get the Rosetta Stone returned in recent years, so far without success.
Indeed, ever since Napoleon’s Middle Eastern campaign, a fierce dispute has waged over the ownership of ancient cultural artifacts. In many cases, the archaeologists who excavated them were British, French, German, Italian or American. But does this grant them the right to keep these most important cultural treasures in their own countries’ museums? Does it give them permission to plunder artifacts from the lands where ancient cultures existed?
The politically correct approach holds that every sovereign nation is the owner of the artifacts found in its territory. If we go by this purist position, Egyptian antiquities belong to Egypt. The other approach argues that national sovereignty is irrelevant: These are the cultural assets of humanity and should be preserved in the places where they are best maintained, and where they are widely accessible to visitors and researchers.
Up until a few years ago, both viewpoints were considered valid. The first was considered to be more fashionable, though, and those holding the second view were considered conservative and arrogant. But the revolutions in Egypt and Iraq, and the civil war in Syria, changed this outlook.
The threat to these countries’ cultural treasures has pulled the rug from under those who demanded the objects be returned to where they were excavated from. National pride and heritage are the basis for demands calling for the return of archaeological treasures, the desire to glorify and honor the local culture, historical legacies and the depth of their roots in the land. Of course, there are also financial motives behind such claims, as well as a desire to attract as many tourists as possible.
The National Library is holding a number of events relating to the exhibition, which opened March 23, including lectures and talks in the gallery.
“Napoleon was Here!” is now on display at the National Library in Jerusalem. Opening hours: Sun-Thur 9 A.M. to 6 P.M.; Friday 9 A.M. to 12 noon. Entrance is free.